Agencies need to speed up shift to FTS 2001, Bates says

Agencies need to speed up shift to FTS 2001, Bates says

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

DALLAS'As the clock ticks toward a Dec. 6 drop-dead date for FTS 2000 bridge contracts, only about a third of government agencies have moved to the nonmandatory FTS 2001 contracts.

Lack of preparation by agencies and vendors, poor cooperation by local carriers and billing problems are getting the blame for a slow transition to the General Services Administration's next-generation telecommunications program.

'We're going to be picking up the pace,' said Sandra Bates, the new commissioner of the Federal Technology Service, at GSA's recent FTS Network Services Conference.

Bates, who replaced retired commissioner Dennis J. Fischer this month, touted the advantages of the eight-year FTS 2001 contracts, awarded to Sprint Corp. and MCI WorldCom Inc. more than a year ago.

Bates said she has extended the target date for completing the transition from June 30 to Sept. 30.

John C. Johnson, who headed the Defense Department's transition and now is chairman of the Federal Transition Task Force, called the switch from the old FTS 2000 contract the largest telecommunications transition in history.

Other federal officials said shifting their complex voice and data systems from one service provider to another has proved a difficult challenge.

'Transition is a much bigger undertaking than most people realize,' said Bob Bubniak, associate deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications at the Veterans Affairs Department and chairman of GSA's Interagency Management Council.

Agencies must maintain current telecom services while layering on a new system, all the while keeping up with day-to-day business, he said.

'Most agencies have finite personnel resources and declining fiscal resources,' Bubniak said.

When FTS took a look at transition progress in the fall, nearly a year after the contracts were awarded, 'what we found was very disturbing,' Bubniak said. Only about 12 percent of agencies had moved.

FTS concentrates on selling the program's bargain rates, but the up-front cost of transition is often ignored until too late, said Bradley K. Hoilman, a Transportation Department telecom specialist.

'I don't think the vendors, either MCI or Sprint, were appropriately geared up for the undertaking,' Bubniak said. Another problem, he said, was bidders' unwillingness to commit resources to transition teams before the contracts were won.

'Billing is a major, major concern,' Bubniak said. 'Telecom is easy, but billing is a problem.'

The contracts call for standard commercial billing procedures, but government agencies have different needs than commercial customers, Johnson said.

Some agencies want centralized billing, while others want bills sent to individual offices. And some Defense agencies have not been receiving bills for FTS 2001 services, Johnson said.

'This has the potential to snowball if we don't get it resolved,' he said.

Furthermore, the long-haul FTS 2001 providers depend on facilities owned by local carriers. 'In many cases, they have not been able to [provide service] due to disconnects with local exchange carriers,' Bubniak said.

At stake in GSA's efforts to move agencies onto the new program is $1.5 billion in promised revenue. Although agencies do not have to use the contracts, Sprint and MCI WorldCom have minimum revenue guarantees of $750 million apiece. FTS also earns its own way by charging a fee for administering the contracts.

'FTS 2001 is not mandatory,' Bates said, 'but if any agency chooses to do something else, they need to make sure they have a contract in place no later than Dec. 6.'

Some agencies have decided to stick with incumbent service provider AT&T Corp. The IRS, for example, will keep its AT&T toll-free 800 service for three more years by extending an FTS 2000 bridge contract that expires in December.

The convenience of the FTS 2001 vehicle for telecom services is only one of the factors agencies must consider, said John J. Doherty, vice president of AT&T's government markets division. The technology offered and the total cost, including cost of transition to a new provider, also must be weighed, he said.

Despite the slow start, Bates, Bubniak and Johnson said the tools are in place to pick up the pace of transition so agencies can finish cutting over before December.

Transition teams have been formed at all levels across the government, and FTS, the Interagency Management Council's Transition Task Force, and agency and contractor teams are learning to work together, Johnson said.

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